Milo found himself backed against a tree trunk. He bit his lip, uncertain about what he should do. Talie waited, her eyes tempting him.
As soon as Milo agreed, Talie snapped back into professional journalist mode. Nothing flirtatious at all.
“First, say and spell your full name,” Talie commanded while her cameraman set up his shot.
“Spell it? Why?”
Talie answered with a well-rehearsed smile. “People get upset when you misspell their names. One Zeblonian got so angry he chased me across three hundred years. I had to go back in time and change my own script!” Talie chuckled. “Do you remember that, Mr. Cognis?”
“Affirmative,” Cognis responded.
Milo followed Talie’s instructions and answered all her questions. She asked about Milo’s family and their contract with the company and about Father’s duties as a grade-five mineralogist. She also asked about the Redlands and its peculiar pattern of impact craters. Milo told her what he’d learned in school: that early space pioneers had classified the Redlands as a poly-circular desert similar to geological formations discovered on other frontier worlds.
“Are you studying to become a mineralogist like your father?” Talie said.
“No. I want to be a musician.”
Talie raised an eyebrow. “The Imperial Government has strict regulations concerning artistic expression,” she said. “Most musical genres are illegal.”
Milo shrugged. “Rebels make the greatest musicians,” he said, repeating something Lianna had once told him.
Talie looked surprised, no doubt a rare experience for such a proficient time traveler. Clearly she enjoyed being surprised, or perhaps she approved of rebellious musicians. Either way, a flirtatious gleam returned to her eyes as she asked her next question: “What are your plans for the future? Escape the Empire? Flee to Mozart Colony?”
Milo felt a lump form in his throat. For a moment, the thrill of being interviewed by Talie Tappler, the Tomorrow News Network’s most famous reporter, made him forget the harsh reality of the situation.
“Do I have a future to plan for?” Milo asked.
Talie smiled politely, terminating the interview.
“Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said in a monotone, “it is time.”
Talie checked her pocket watch, a scuffed and battered artifact of ancient craftsmanship, full of wheels and springs, lubricated with oil and held together by tiny, metal screws. The casing appeared to be plain copper, and the inner display used some sort of analog system to track the passage of time. The device seemed so primitive, and yet it emitted an aura, a strange glow right at the edge of human perception, that stung Milo’s eyes, forcing him to look away.
“Time for what?” he asked.
Without a word, Talie and her cameraman turned to go, walking together at a brisk pace. At that moment, Milo no longer cared about the unknown catastrophe poised to strike Cancriph’s second moon, nor did he care that his own short life was surely about to end, nor even did he care that this time traveler, with all her foreknowledge and power, would do nothing to stop it. At that moment, Milo only cared about one thing: finding Lianna, making sure she was safe.
Milo ran after Talie. She’d almost reached the bio-dome’s airlock when he stopped her, grabbing her by the wrist.
“I know about you,” Milo said. “I know the kinds of stories you cover. Disasters. Carnage. Mayhem.”
Talie yanked her arm away. “That’s not true. I also cover positive stuff, like the day scientists fixed global warming.”
“And how the solution caused a second ice age,” Milo added.
The cyborg stepped forward, protecting Talie with his hulking, half-metal body. His eyes, one organic, the other synthetic, observed Milo without any hint of emotion. Milo instinctively stepped back, wondering how often employees of the Tomorrow News Network had to deal with confrontations like this. How often did some idiot demand to know the future? To Talie and Cognis, this must seem so routine.
“What’s going to happen?” Milo demanded.
Talie rolled her eyes. “I can’t get personally involved,” she said. “It would ruin my journalistic integrity.”
Milo laughed. The other gardeners stopped working. The children turned away from their lesson. They stared at Milo and Talie, listening to the increasingly heated exchange between them. From across the bio-dome, Sylvia glared at Milo, infuriated by his rude behavior.
“You could save all these people!” Milo shouted.
Talie looked offended. She dared to feel offended when two thousand colonists were doomed to die.
“At least tell us how much time we have left!” Milo yelled as Talie strutted off, unaffected by Milo’s complaints. The heavy, airlock door clanged shut behind her.
Mr. Cognis remained. After a few moments, the cyborg reached into the pocket of his body-molded suit. He stepped forward in an un-cyborg-like manner, as though he were nervous, and offered Milo a small pillbox inscribed with the Tomorrow News Network logo.
“We brought two extra doses,” the cyborg whispered when Milo didn’t accept the offered gift. “There is less than a 0.01% chance Ms. Tappler or I will require them. Use one for yourself. Give the other to someone you care about. A family member, perhaps. I wish I could do more.”
Milo glanced at the pillbox, so small, so innocent-looking, and felt such extraordinary moral outrage that he slapped Cognis’s hand away. The pillbox fell to the ground, landing in a patch of loose soil.
“How can I decide who lives or dies?” Milo said. “I’d be as bad as her!”
The cyborg nodded sadly, just as any normal cyborg wouldn’t. “I wish I could do more,” he repeated as he turned and left the bio-dome.
Milo cursed under his breath. He stooped down to retrieve the pillbox, knowing precisely who he’d give the second dose to. The box’s contents were undamaged: two tiny, oblong gel caps with a sparkling substance inside. Secretly thanking Cognis, Milo swallowed the first dose and snapped the box shut. If all else were lost, at least two people would survive.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Sylvia said, approaching. “Young man, you are part of a community, and your actions reflect on the community. That means you treat visitors with respect. That means you obey colonial rules. That means…”
Milo didn’t listen to the rest of Sylvia’s tirade. He hopped to his feet and ran to the airlock, leaving the chilled, manufactured air of the bio-dome behind and stepping out into the hot, dry atmosphere of the alien world he called home.
* * *
Every twenty-one days, Cancriph eclipsed its dim, yellow sun, plunging the moon into darkness. The two celestial spheres were now approaching their zenith. As Milo ran through the streets, a shadow began to fall over the colony.
Milo had a good idea where Lianna might be hiding. The two of them knew of a secluded meadow among the balloon trees, a secret place where they could play music without anyone hearing. It was the place where they kept their instruments, a pair of crudely fashioned flutes made from hydroponic tubes. At this time of year, the helium sac flora would be in full bloom, their slimy blossoms pollinating the air, turning the meadow into an eerie stage for song. Milo and Lianna had to write their own compositions—mostly awful stuff about bio-domes, lithium mines, and gas giant planets that filled half the sky—but in that still and quiet meadow, their music took on a strange and haunting quality.
Milo raced around a corner, sprinting down a narrow alley between the oxygen reclamation center and the wastewater extraction plant. He hoped he had at least twenty minutes until the end. He was already running as fast as he could.
“Oh, Mr. Cognis, get that shot! I can write to that!”
Milo skidded to a halt. Talie and Cognis were in the open area ahead watching school children play ball. Milo turned and ran back the way he’d come. He knew plenty of other ways into the forest.
A tall fence lined the northern border of the colony, separating company property from the legally protected wilderness. Milo climbed halfway up the fence before a stout security officer noticed him. “Get down from there!” the man shouted, jogging across the yard. Milo kept going, flipping himself overtop the fence and dropping down the other side.
“Good-for-nothing kids,” the security officer muttered, slowing down. He seemed to be struggling with his leg. Maybe an old injury was acting up, Milo thought, until he saw the man fall.
Milo hesitated. The forest was right behind him. All he had to do was jump over the bubble moss hedge and keep running.
“Are you okay?” Milo asked, a sickening feeling overcoming him.
“Stay right there,” the officer ordered, trying to get back to his feet. “You’re in a lot of trouble, kid.”
The officer stood up, but his movements seemed stiff and off-balance. His elbow had locked at a crooked angle, and putting weight on the bad leg made him wince. The man took one more laborious step forward then collapsed a second time.
Milo stumbled backward. The forest was so close. He had to find the meadow. He had to find Lianna, but he couldn’t stop watching.
The poor man heaved himself up, using the fence for support. He screamed, but it sounded more like a pathetic groan. The muscles of his face were freezing solid, capturing an expression of unbearable pain.
The officer lost his grip on the fence and toppled over. One foot quivered. His fingers clawed at the ground. “Please… help…” a frail voice called. It sounded nothing like the voice of the stout security guard who, moments earlier, had caught another good-for-nothing kid climbing fences.
Someone should alert the medical staff, Milo thought. The colony doctors knew how to diagnose strange, alien pathogens. They had specialized equipment to help them synthesize a cure. They had a high tech quarantine lab built just for this sort of emergency.
Except Talie Tappler didn’t cover plagues that could be cured. In the distance, Milo heard more screaming. This was the beginning of an epidemic, a new Black Death that would sweep across the galaxy. A big story indeed. The story of the century.